I’ve always been a kind of purist when it comes to what I grow in my garden. I prefer heirlooms, the rarer the better, over pretty much everything else, including regular open-pollinated plants. But what is an heirloom, anyway? What about “open pollinated”? And what’s the difference between heirloom vs hybrid seed? Here’s the lowdown on different types of seed you will come across.
Open-pollinated seed means that when you grow the plant you can save the seed, and the offspring will be true to form.
Heirlooms are all open-pollinated but are generally older varieties. The timing is debatable, but I generally think of heirlooms as pre-WWII varieties. Why WWII? That was about when we started transitioning to growing food with petrochemicals and started breeding more for uniformity and shipping ability rather than for taste and nutrients.
Hybrid seed is just a cross between two varieties. It’s not transgenic (also called GMO), so let’s get that straight now. If you see (F1) next to the seed’s name or description, it means it is the first generation of the cross. Of course, you can continually save seed through multiple generations and end up with a stable variety—and that is when you get an open-pollinated plant.
I have come to the realization, however, that maybe all heirlooms isn’t the best way to go. Sometimes you have to choose between being able to successfully grow it or buying it at the store. I would much rather purchase a hybrid and grow it here than have to resort to buying it at the store. Some heirloom varieties just don’t work for the Bay Area.
The heirlooms plants that I’ve had the most trouble with are Brassicas. While heirloom varieties of cabbage and cauliflower do great for me, I have a horrible time with Brussels sprouts and broccoli. Usually I get a very small harvest of broccoli and absolutely nothing from the Brussels sprouts.
Since the selection of available heirloom varieties for both of those is very limited, and I’ve tried most of them, I think it’s time for me to finally admit that I need to switch to using hybrids for these two crops.
What about you? Are there any heirlooms you’ve had to part ways with?
My friends in college used to call me a Renaissance woman. I was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. I still am. Instead of arts and crafts, my focus these days has been farming as much of my urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with my husband, I run Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. We raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. We’re always keeping busy. If I’m not out in the yard, I’m in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!